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Paul Zimmerman
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CA State Legislature Clamps Down on Residential Treatment Centers

The existence of residential sober living homes and other treatment centers located in residential neighborhoods has recently attracted the attention of many media outlets and has become a hot button topic on both sides of the argument. The California State Assembly’s Health Committee has now approved two separate bills which would impose stricter regulations on these facilities.

Authored by Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, AB 2255 would create an optional state certification that sober living homes could apply for. The state would, in turn, maintain a list of accredited facilities, which consumers would be encouraged to use. Another bill, AB 2403 authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, aims to reduce the concentration of residential treatment centers and licensed group homes. Taken together, the two bills would significantly alter the regulatory environment in which drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities currently operate. This is just the latest example of a sustained effort by state and local governments to clamp down on the booming behavioral health industry.

Assemblywoman Melendez offered the following commentary in a statement released in conjunction with the Committee’s approval of AB 2255: “Poorly operated sober living homes have plagued our neighborhoods for years without facing any repercussions. Without any health and good-neighbor standards, too many of these homes provide little to no care for individuals struggling with addiction and their neighborhoods. This bill is a simple solution to promote safety and effective recovery throughout the state.” Some within the sober living industry have welcomed the bill, emphasizing that by imposing regulatory standards, the bad operators will be weeded out, and legitimate facilities appropriately endorsed. However, despite the voluntary nature of the proposed certification process, some critics of the bill have labeled AB 2255 as just another form of politically-motivated legislation that masquerades as a safety measure despite being intentionally designed to cater to the “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) agenda.

AB 2403 has induced even stronger objections in this regard. This bill would force the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) of California to prohibit the operation of treatment centers or sober houses based on their proximity to one another by introducing the concept of “overconcentration.” More specifically, the bill would force DHCS to issue a single license to any group of facilities with a cumulative total of more than six residents that are under the same ownership or management, or share any notable connection. The concept of “integral facility” as laid out in the bill includes any group of treatment centers that have anything in common. Under AB 2404, this commonality could be something as simple as a shared director, consultant or vendor.

Under current law, licensed residential treatment centers are exempt from zoning regulations if they have no more than six residents. In effect, this means that such facilities do not need permission from the local government in order to operate. Under AB 2403, however, the zoning exemption for “integral facilities” is eliminated, giving neighbors the power to vote to have the facility cease activities. As many commentators have already pointed out, this new law would raise significant questions about the important protections granted under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. AB 2403 would arguably undermine these protections by requiring the State to issue a single license to two facilities when they have even the most minor of connections, thereby pushing the total occupancy over six and exposing small group homes to increased regulation, neighborhood backlash, and potential closure.

In light of this pending legislation, as well as efforts by local governmental entities (across numerous states) to slow the spread of sober-living homes in neighborhoods consisting of predominantly single-family residences, we are likely to see more and more examples of sober living homes facing increased scrutiny and regulatory obstacles.

In this current climate, those who wish to operate an addiction treatment facility or sober living home should pay close attention to appropriate licensing requirements and zoning regulations, as well as laws related to marketing practices, fraud and abuse. To ensure full compliance with the law, owners and operators must be vigilant.

This blog post is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.